Where Modesto school district stands at superintendent’s one-year anniversary

New Modesto City Schools superintendent Sara Noguchi
New Modesto City Schools superintendent Sara Noguchi

Running Modesto City Schools, by far the largest school district in these parts, is no small task.

The sheer size of the district — 30,000 students, 4,000 employees — is daunting. Many children come from families struggling with low income, or with finding better jobs, or learning English, or all of the above. Factor in state testing, aging schools, declining enrollment, an anemic budget and a muscular teachers union to contend with. Who would want the job as superintendent?

One year ago, Sara Noguchi said she would. About the same time — just when she needed more strength than ever — fate dealt an untimely, cruel blow: breast cancer.

With all those burdens crashing down, what might we expect a year later?

The signs, thankfully, are positive:

Full-day kindergarten will launch when school starts in three weeks, at 22 elementary schools. “I’d never worked in a district without all-day kinder,” Noguchi said. “I said, ‘We need to make this one happen.’ To me, this is essential.” For the record, statewide legislation mandating full-day kindergarten — a priority for Governor Gavin Newsom — is pending in Assembly Bill 197.

— After-school programs are expanding.

— Although enrollment has been shrinking for years across the district, some campuses actually are welcoming more students, including Davis, Beyer and Modesto high schools.

— The district has made strides in reducing suspensions and chronic absences.

— Test scores are rising in key subjects at several schools.

— Construction on several long-overdue improvements has begun, funded by local bond Measures D and E. Of course, this effort began long before Noguchi arrived.

— Noguchi wants Modesto teachers in the running for various levels of award recognition, reversing an aversion that historically kept them from even being nominated.

— Davis High’s once-vaunted Language Institute, whose future appears in limbo, is expanding to fourth-through-sixth grades at Tuolumne Elementary School.

The last point may represent the district’s most public battle since Noguchi took over, with some program staff and others proposing a rival program. It would serve children from immigrant and refugee families from throughout Stanislaus County in a new charter school called New Colossus Academy at Modesto’s Grace Lutheran Church. Its creation depends on a landmark Aug. 13 vote by the Stanislaus County Office of Education board; look for our editorial opinion on this proposal in a couple of weeks.

Superintendents with 12 districts across the county, including Modesto City Schools, oppose the charter. By virtue of representing the largest district, with the most to lose, Noguchi became the face of this opposition. But the dispute clearly wasn’t her fault, seeds of discontent having been sown long before she arrived a year ago.

“If only we had fostered relationships five years ago,” Noguchi mused.

That focus on collaboration is a hallmark of Noguchi’s tenure thus far.

She gained trust not by charging in, but by adhering to a “look, listen and learn” approach, even as she underwent chemotherapy. A listening tour stretching several weeks brought her team 25,000 pieces of data to sift through, evaluate and ponder, focused on valuable input from parents and teachers alike.

Important changes came later, including switching out half of Noguchi’s cabinet, or top administrative tier.

Grading a school superintendent after one year may be like judging an NFL quarterback after one season: preliminary impressions are emerging, while real value may take time to establish.

But those first signs, as we’ve said, point to improvement. Many challenges lie ahead, but it’s good to see Modesto City Schools moving in the right direction.

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